University of Baltimore MFA writing student Lisa M. Van Wormer recalls the day her fellow soldier failed to answer the repeat call of her name. Hear Lisa read the piece on WYPR’s “The Signal” this Friday at 7.
You are about halfway through your year deployment to Iraq at this point, just enough time to make routines and gain a sense of security in the day to day. You are at a satellite site away from the majority of your unit when you hear the news. Once granted permission you are on the next convoy to travel the 40 miles down IED alley to the base that it happened at, to be there for your surviving friends—for roll call. The feeling this day at the base is far different from any other you have experienced. For one, everyone is in full battle rattle (flak vest with shields, Kevlar, slung weapon, eight 30-round magazines), even off guard duty, which is not the norm for this secluded base. Secondly, there’s no milling around or open chatting—the whole base is silent and somber.
You spiral up the staircase to the female barracks; you drop your gear and just witness. The soldier lost is a female and only in the privacy of their sleeping quarters do the other women of the unit feel safe enough to actually discuss the situation. You hear the full story and are horrified. You hear how she was pulling duty twelve hours a day out in the cities. How she was shot at so often it stopped fazing her. Then you hear the worst part. That it was her first day off in 20, and how she was laughing with her mom on the phone when a rocket came from across the Tigris River and turned the area to rubble. You hear the wounded wails of the girls who rushed to her rescue and how their valorous attempts still could not save her life. You sit in grief with them, cry with them, imagine with them what suddenly could be your last moments here, and you think about the utter devastation of your mom after hearing of your destruction from across the world.
You take the cues from the rest and respectfully keep your distance from her cot, from her bags, from her movies, from her plush blanket, from her taped up pictures of her family, and head down the marble staircase to consider lunch and get ready for roll call. You have to take an unfamiliar path to avoid the rubble of the rockets that hit the base the day before. The chow hall is eerily quiet. You eat as fast as possible and go outside to wait for formation. You don’t know what to expect, having only seen this sort of formation in the movies. All you know for sure is that this roll call happens anytime soldiers are lost in a unit, and it is to acknowledge the fallen soldier’s contribution to her country.
It is not a mandatory formation. Soldiers line up if they think they can hold it together, or they hang back in the background. You stand in the back, but can still see that in front are her boots, weapon, dog tags, and helmet. The first sergeant announces, “Roll call,” and the formation is called and everyone around snaps to attention and stands as still as possible in the close to 100 degree stifling heat. Every soldier in formation’s name is called out one by one, and a response of “Here, Sergeant Major” is quietly called in return.
Then the sergeant major calls out her name.
The whole place is silent, even the generators seem to respect the quiet and drone softer. He calls her name a second time. Again, no response. He calls her name, her full name and rank, a third and final time. The first sergeant steps forward and responds with her full name, her rank, and that she was killed in action the day before in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. There is a quiet sniffling pause from the group, and after a long moment the sergeant major responds to the accountability in the affirmative and the group is put at ease. You won’t remember the words the sergeant major uses to characterize her, her value, her contributions, and her sacrifice. You will vaguely remember his urging you to never forget this member of your Army family, and how you need to pull together with the rest of your brothers and sisters in arms to grieve and continue to move forward. You wonder if he is thinking about her mother too.
* * * * *
When the deployment is over and you finally return home, you attend one final roll call formation. Everyone attends this formation, including the family of those who did not come back from the war. It is another accountability formation that calls out the names of all of the soldiers that did not return with you. Your unit is “lucky” to still have only one name called on this day. At this formation, you notice her parents and siblings are there. Her family’s grief is the only sound you hear during the calling of her name. Her sister’s gasping, her father’s silent shoulder shaking, her brother’s quiet screaming inside his hands that are covering his face, and her mother’s strangled sobs. Well meaning yet insufficient words are said about her bravery, about her kindness, and about her sacrifice in support of our country.
While standing in formation, you think about how different this feels compared to the one about six months prior. When you are out there and horror happens, there is no relief because you are still there. There is no time to even pause and feel because you still have to be aware and present every moment to continue trying to survive. When you finally return, you are so grateful to be home, and yet the gravity that your fallen friends won’t see home weighs on you, and on the unit as a whole. You’ve never before been so conflicted by grief and gratitude. You let your tears fall while standing at attention in formation, and you remember your friend smiling, laughing, and know that the last chapter of her life will always be a part of this chapter of yours.
Lisa M. Van Wormer was a soldier in the U.S. Army and writes mostly about her time in the service to include her deployment to Iraq. She is currently a graduate student in University of Baltimore’s Creative Writing and Publishing MFA program — read another essay by Lisa here.